It's four a.m. You've been awake for forty hours, when you unlock a puzzle containing this video of some kind of dance-off between a chicken and a roller-skating beaver.
The confusion and delight you're experiencing is a typical moment at the MIT Mystery Hunt, which is basically the Olympics meets Burning Man for a specific type of nerd.
Today, I'm going to take you inside this strange, intellectually masochistic and incredibly joyful world.
But first, I have to explain what I mean when I say "puzzle." A puzzle-hunt-style puzzle is a data set. It can be a grid of letters, a sudoku, a video, an audio—it can be anything that contains hidden information that can eventually resolve into an answer that is a word or a phrase. So, to give you an example, this is a puzzle called "Master Pieces." It consists of 10 images of LEGO people looking at piles of LEGOs. And to save us some time, I'm going to explain what's going on here. Each of the piles of LEGOs is a deconstructed work of art in the style of a famous artist. So, does anybody recognize the artist on the left? They used a lot of red. I heard "Rothko," yeah. The second one?
Yeah, well done. And the third one? This is the hardest one—Yeah, Klimt, I heard it. Well done, the color is the biggest clue there.
So the puzzle has various clues that tell you what matters here are the artists, not the specific works of art. And what you need to do is then look at what you haven't used yet, which is the number of LEGO people in each painting. And you can count them and then count into the artists' last names by the same number of letters. So there's three people in front of the Rothko on the left, so you take the third letter, which is a T. There's only one in front of the Mondrian, so you take the first letter, M. And there's three again in front of Klimt, so you take the third letter, I. You do that for all 10 of the original artists and put them in the order, and you get the answer, which is "illuminate."
Puzzles like this are about communicating an idea. But where I'm trying to be as clear as possible for you now, puzzles have to navigate the line between abstraction and clarity. They have to be obtuse enough to make you work for it, but elegant enough so you can get to the aha moment, where everything clicks into place. Puzzle solvers are junkies for this aha moment—it feels like a brief high and an instant of pristine clarity. And there's also a deeper fulfillment at play here, which is that humans are innate problem-solvers. That's why we love crosswords and escape rooms and figuring out how to explore the bottom of the ocean.
Solving deviously difficult puzzles expands our minds in new directions, and it also helps us come at problems from diverse perspectives. These puzzles come in various puzzle hunts, which come in various shapes and sizes. There's one-hour ones designed for novices, 24-hour road rallies, and the puzzle hunt of puzzle hunts, the MIT Mystery Hunt.
This is an event that takes place once a year and has around 2,000 people descending on MIT's campus and solving puzzles in teams that range from a single person to over 100. My team has 60 people on it—that includes a national crossword puzzle tournament champion, a particle physicist, a composer, an actual deep-sea explorer, and me, feeling like "Mr. Bean goes to Bletchley Park."
That's actually an apt comparison, because one year involved a puzzle where you had to construct a working Enigma machine out of pieces of cardboard.
Each Mystery Hunt has a theme. Past ones have included "The Matrix" and "Alice in Wonderland." It's often pop culture- and literary-based themes. And the goal is to find the coin that's been hidden somewhere on MIT's campus. And in order to get there, you have to solve around 150 puzzles and do various events and challenges. I had done this for about 10 years without ever dreaming of winning, until January of 2016, where 53 hours into a hunt whose theme is the movie "Inception," we haven't slept in days, so everything is hilarious...
The tables are covered in piles of papers, of our notes and completed puzzles. The whiteboards are an unintelligible mess of three days' worth of insights. And we're stuck on two puzzles. If we could crack them, we would get into the endgame, and after hours of work, in a magical moment, they both fall within 10 seconds of each other, and soon, we're on the final runaround, a series of clues that will lead us to the coin, and we're racing through the halls of MIT, trying not to knock over or terrify tour groups, when we realize we're not alone, there's another team on the runaround as well, and we don't know who's ahead. So, we're a mess of anxiety, anticipation, exhilaration and sleep deprivation, when we arrive at the Alchemist, a sculpture in which we find...this coin. Yeah. And in claiming it, we win the MIT Mystery Hunt by a tiny margin of five minutes. What I didn't mention before is that the prize for winning is that you get to construct the whole hunt for the following year.
The punishment for winning is that you have to construct the whole hunt for the following year. At the beginning of 2016, I had never constructed a puzzle before—I had solved plenty of puzzles, but constructing and solving are entirely different beasts. But once again, I was lucky to be on a team full of brilliant mentors and collaborators. So, from a constructor's point of view, a puzzle is where I have an idea, and instead of telling you what it is, I'm going to leave a trail of breadcrumbs so you can figure it out for yourself, and have the joy and experience of the aha moment. This is another way of looking at the aha moment. And what's incredible to me is that this experience, which is very emotional and kind of almost physical, is something that can be carefully designed.
So, to show you what I mean, this is a puzzle I co-constructed with my friend Matt Gruskin. It's a text adventure, which is the old-school adventure game format, where you're exploring, going north, east, south and west, picking up items and using them. And you could get to the end of the game part, but you won't have solved the puzzle. In order to do so, you have to recognize a hidden layer of information, and the easiest way of seeing it is by mapping the game out. That looks something like this. Does anybody recognize what this is? Yeah, exactly. This text adventure takes place within "Settlers of Catan." Who here knows what "Settlers" is? Nerds.
If you don't know, "Settlers" is a board game where you're competing against other people to collect resources and use them to build structures. And within the text adventure, we hid information in various ways, with which you could reconstruct an entire game. You could figure out the roads, the cities, the towns, the resources, the numbers on the tiles, even the dice rolls. You put all that information together and you could extract an answer in a way that's too complicated to explain right now.
But find me afterwards if you really want to know. But what this puzzle emphasized for me is the value of perspective shifts in inspiring an aha. So, in this puzzle, you go from experiencing the world on the ground, as a character, to looking down on it from above as if you're playing a board game, and in that shift, you completely reframe all the information you've been given.
The hardest part of construction for me is coming up with a great idea for an aha. Fortunately, the world is a torrent of ideas and information. I've seen fantastic puzzles constructed out of the waggle dances of bees, and the remarkable coincidence that the 88 keys of a piano can be perfectly mapped to the 88 constellations in the sky. Once you find that out, you can't not construct the puzzle, and it's going to be about having the solvers make that connection in their own minds. Whether you give them stars on a keyboard or play the celestial music of the cosmos, you're getting them there, one way or another. Before long, you find yourself staring at a turtle, and asking yourself, "Is this a puzzle?"
And also, staring at a turtle and saying, "I never appreciated what multitudes this contains in its shell alone." This might be a familiar experience to you, if you've ever been watching a TED Talk and asked yourself, "Is this a puzzle?" I'm not telling. But what I will say is that puzzles can be found in the most unexpected of places. That brings us back to one of my favorite puzzles of all time, which was constructed by Trip Payne. And this time, I'm going to play it for you with the sound on, so get ready to name that tune.
Who knows what that is? Yeah, "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman."
So you can identify that and seven other songs and clips, and then look at the videos themselves for clues, where the way that they are filmed and edited together plus things like the cutaways to the panel of five people sitting at a table, which is reminiscent of a panel of judges, all of this can suggest "reality competition show." And either through internet research, or from just recognizing this, you can get to the aha, which is that these clips are shot-for-shot recreations of lip-synch battles from "RuPaul's Drag Race."
So, why do we do this?
You tell me, I don't know. So, first of all, it's really fun. But I think it also improves our lives in various ways. Being able to solve puzzles, when I'm confronted with a challenge, has allowed me to explore it from multiple perspectives before I lock in an approach. Also, the process of solving is great training for working with a team, knowing when to listen, when to share, and how to recognize and celebrate insight and being able to construct ahas is a very powerful tool. Think of how powerful and exciting and convincing an idea is that comes from your own mind, where you make all the connections yourself.
So in January of 2017, after tens of thousands of hours of work, we finally run our Mystery Hunt. And it's a different sort of satisfaction than the quick high of an aha moment. Instead, it's the slow burn of saying something through perplexing abstraction, yet being understood. And when it was all over, in our exhaustion, we turned to each other and the world, and we said, "We're never doing this again. It's too much work. It's really fun, but no more winning." One year later, in January of 2018, we won the MIT Mystery Hunt again.
So, we're currently I don't know how many tens of thousands of hours of work in, and we're two months out from the 2019 Hunt. So, thank you for listening, I have to go write a puzzle.